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Narrowing a Doctrine: Penal Substitution and Isaiah 53

Narrowing a Doctrine: Penal Substitution and Isaiah 53

In a previous post, Adrian Warnock said there were two reactions to his interview with the authors of Pierced for our Transgressions. I’m guessing he referred to the favorable and unfavorable, and intensely so in each case. In the rest of that post, he implied pretty strongly that those of us who are opposed to PSA [as the sole metaphor for the atonement I would add, but Adrian did not] are not spending enough time with the scriptures.

I also note two sets of reactions. I see one set of reactions that deal with the actual position of opponents, and one set of reactions that prefer to make accusations. I don’t want to spend much time on this, but let me just quote one example, from Grave Updates

Isn’t off how it is always those with robust theology who are told to become broad and drop our distinctives, as if the greatest sin is to offend those who hold to vague and are like those Paul speaks of in 2 Timothy 3:7, “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.”:

I would simply like to note here that my position on PSA has nothing to do with avoiding offense to anyone. I’m also not afraid of giving offense to the proponents of PSA as the exclusive or “real” teaching of the atonement when it is, in fact, one metaphor for the atonement. I am quite open in saying that such teaching is wrong and presents a stumbling block. It’s very easy in Christian circles to attribute “truth value” to being persecuted, and to give great credit to teachings which are exceptionally offensive. After all, the gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18). But Paul never said that every stupid and offensive thing thereby automatically became God’s truth. It is crucially important, I believe, for us to make sure that it is the gospel that is offending people when they are offended, and not our behavior or our made up teachings.

Now Adrian hits us with Isaiah 53. It’s not a bad chapter to use in discussing the atonement, but I find it amazing to have Adrian quote it and let it “speak for itself” as though nobody who rejects his view of PSA has ever read the passage. Well, I have read, memorized, studied, and restudied that passage many times. Having Adrian quote it one more time is unlikely to change a thing, unless he can point out how that scripture challenges my view that:

  1. Substitution is broader than penal substitution
  2. Atonement is broader than substitution

I have never denied substitution. I took a class Exegesis of Romans (from the Greek text) from a professor who believed in the moral influence theory. He tried to teach it from Romans. It didn’t work. He massacred Paul’s teaching. I did my very best to see it his way. I was inclined to see it his way. I liked the professor and enjoyed his lecture style. Nonetheless, I just couldn’t do it. Nonetheless there is an element of moral influence in the atonement.

There is also an element of substitution in Isaiah 53, though very little of it is penal in nature. Isaiah 53 needs to be viewed in the broader context of the servant passages of 2nd Isaiah (40-55), but even that is not the primary point. I’m not arguing that Jesus is not described here, though that interpretation will not work as an exclusive look at the chapter. That is another debate. But let’s look at the substitution in this case:

Notice in verse 4 that it is the people in general who esteem the servant “smitten by God.” They view him as suffering for his own sin, and thus under the wrath of God when in fact the servant is suffering for their sin. The servant gets all the suffering for the guilt of the whole people, and he submits to it. That is absolutely substitution, but there is no indication that God’s anger is directed at the servant. He certainly dies as a substitute, but the notion that God turns his anger purely on the person of that righteous person is simply not there.

The debate here, at least with me, is not that Jesus did not suffer and die for our sins. It is rather with the penal aspect, and with the exclusivity of either substitution or the penal aspect. I see nothing whatsoever in Isaiah 53 that denies my position. Even verse 10, that especially in the ESV sounds most like penal substitution can be read quite easily and appropriate as the Lord allowing the stroke to fall on the servant rather than the whole nation.

Incidentally this goes well with the view that the servant is in the first instance the remnant of Judah, taken into exile, and viewed as the greatest transgressors by those left behind. But they were the ones God was using to preserve the future of his people. In the second instance, Jesus fulfills the remainder of the prophecy as the pure remnant, the final representative of the people who took the punishment on himself. It is consistent both with God’s action and with the action of Jesus in laying down his own life (John 10:18).

The problem I see repeatedly here is that texts that fit well with more than one view of the atonement are being cited as exclusively supporting one narrow view. I do not regard this approach to interpretation as scriptural. That is my problem with PSA. It cuts a square inch out of a large tapestry and then declares the square inch to be the whole. That’s too close to idolatry for me.

Isaiah 24-27 – Interpretation

Isaiah 24-27 – Interpretation

Now that we’ve looked at various critical issues about this passage, and I’ve discussed the dangers and difficulties involved with Biblical criticism, I’d like to summarize some of the things we can learn by examining the passage critically.

We have identified a number of elements in the passage that have been strung together to form a whole, overall message. If we read the passage through without carefully looking for the various sections and the various breaks between sections, we might try to pull the entire thing into a single theme. You can try this as a study experiment for yourself if you like. Try to make a coherent outline of these four chapters that organize the subject matter coherently in the sense, for example, that you might organize a college research paper.

What you’ll notice is that it is very difficult to find any coherent timeline, or to find any good geographical or historical “hooks.” In the previous chapters, especially 13-23, there are numerous references to historical events, locations, and people, and it is normally fairly easy to date a particular oracle and tie it to some particular set of events. These identifications are not without controversy, but there are at least some facts to deal with.

In chapters 24-27 in contrast, there is very little. But if you look at the passages they all deal with material that is somehow related to the end of the age, to God’s judgment on the whole world. That is why this passage is often called an apocalypse, as it deals with material similar to that of Daniel, Revelation, and some of the other apocalyptic literature. But it differs both in that it does not have the same symbolism, and again because it does not tie easily to specific historical events.

Some commentators, as I have noted before, simply think this passage is incoherent. But let me suggest another option. Our author has taken a variety of elements, including hymns of praise, oracles of judgment, and promises of victory, and has strung them together. (To see my previous comments on this passage, start with my entry Isaiah 24-27 – Overview.) This seems to offend our sense of order. Surely a prophecy should be more coherent!

But will the end times be all that coherent? I’m often struck by the extreme order of prophetic timelines presented by many preachers. The end of the world will happen on a precise, easily perceived schedule. If you follow the particular preacher’s interpretation you will be OK, because you will know what is going to happen. But times of God’s judgment and of his redemption, such as the time of the exile to Babylon and the restoration under Cyrus and his successors often does not work in that coherent of a fashion.

I think that rather than being incoherent or accidental, these chapters portray the feeling of being in the midst of the end times. There will be times when it seems victory is in sight, and we will sing songs of praise. There will be times when it will seem that all is dark. There will be times to recite the oracles of judgment: God will deal with the wicked. At other times we will need to remember promises of praise. (Please note that I am not a pre-tribulationist, in case you couldn’t tell!)

Isaiah 24-27 presents an excellent picture of that time, and if you read it out loud, and let the changes of attitude sweep over you, you may come to better understand some of the nature of living in a time when God is coming both in judgment and in redemption.

[This conludes my series of blog entries on Biblical criticism. There is obviously much more that could be said, but I have to draw a line somewhere. I mentioned in an earlier post that I might post some on critical issues in the book of Daniel, and I probably will, but I will do so over on the Participatory Bible Study blog.]

Isaiah 24-27: Basics of Criticism

Isaiah 24-27: Basics of Criticism

Now that we’ve looked over the text and found a set of transitions in it, we can start looking at how critical methologies will apply to this material. Will they help us interpret and apply the passage?

This is a moment to look at some of the reasons I’ve been writing this series. Frequently, Bible students are confronted with the results of critical scholarship, but with very little support, documentation, and reasonsing provided to help them determine whether they should accept a particular critical position or not. On the other hand, they will often see denials of the results of criticism with equally little background provided. One can’t avoid the types of questions that Biblical criticism asks, even though one can have widely varying positions on the answers. Whatever commentary or study Bible you choose, there will be statements about the date of writing, the authorship, and the historical and cultural circumstances of the book.

What do you do when one set of notes tells you that the gospel of Mark was written around 45 CE, while another says it was written between 70 and 80 CE? In relation to our particular exercise, what do you do when one source tells you that Isaiah was written by a single author in the 7th century BCE, while another says it has at least three authors dating from the 7th century to the 4th century BCE? Again narrowing in on Isaiah 24-27, how do you respond when one source says this is a scattered collection of unrelated sayings that has obviously suffered in editing and transmission, while another tells you that this passage is a coherent whole with a single theme carefully presented?

You can, as some people do, take the word of the scholar who is most similar to your theological viewpoint, you could throw up your hands and say, “Nobody knows!” or you can dig in and ask a simple question: How do each of these scholars know what they claim to know? That is the purpose of delving into critical methology. How does someone come to any of these conclusions?

Let’s think briefly about the gospel of Mark. There are two major areas of disagreement that alter the way scholars date Mark. The first is their solution to the synoptic problem. If someone believes that Mark is one of the sources for Matthew and Luke, he will clearly have to date it before Matthew and Luke. The second major issue is found in the relationship of the text to the destruction of Jerusalem. This is not only an issue of whether predictive prophecy is possible, but also whether the text of Mark reflects a situation in which the temple has been destroyed or not. Based on these criteria, you’ll find that more conservative scholars who believe that Mark was written first tend to date Mark very early. More liberal scholars tend to date Mark a bit later, even if they believe Mark was written first. Conservative scholars who believe Matthew wrote first tend to date Mark a bit later, though often still before the destruction of Jerusalem. (This can get tricky depending on how one dates Matthew.) Some scholars who are moderate or liberal believe Matthew was written first, and this results in a very late date for Mark, since in general the same scholars would date Matthew shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem. If you look carefully in each introduction to Mark, you will probably find the reasons even though they may not be clearly set out for you.

In the case of Isaiah, we don’t have an issue of copying, except in a small number of cases. We have two categories of issues: 1) That some portions of Isaiah are written presuming Assyria to be the main enemy, 2) that some portions are written assuming Babylon to be the main enemy, 3) that Cyrus is specifically named as a deliverer (which even some who like a 7th century date in general find a little hard to accept), and 4) that there are also passages that appear to apply to a time of rebuilding. This is not the time to evaluate all those issues in detail, but you should be aware of them. The deutero- and trito-Isaiah theories are based on an analysis of the text itself, along with a small number of external references. You need to consider the details about the text in order to express a valid and convincing opinion on the topic.

As we start on Isaiah 24-27, I want to call your attention to a couple of my own experiences in studying other books. I did a full quarter independent study in college on Ezekiel’s call vision (Ezekiel 1). One commentary guts the call vision of repetitions and things that seem not to fit into a coherent description of the vision. As I read this commentary (see the paper for more details), I began to ask myself whether the original report of the call vision would, in fact, have had the characteristics of brevity, organization, and clarity that this commentator supposed it would have? I decided that this was unlikely. A vision, after all, is not an ordinary experience. One might be slightly incoherent in describing the vision. By making the chapter more organized, that commentator was, in fact, losing the feeling of excitement and awe, along with the difficulty of describing a vision of this nature. I encountered the same thing using R. H. Charles’s commentary on Revelation in the ICC series. Charles rearranges the last chapters of Revelation because he thinks they are so horribly disarranged. He even suggests the following:

. . . John died either as a martyr or by a natural death, when he had completed i.-xx. 3 of his work, and that the materials for its completion, which were for the most part ready in a series of independent documents, were put together by a faithful but unintelligent disciple in the order which he thought right. (Charles, Revelation Vol II, p. 147)

Again we have to ask whether the order that the modern student thought right is the order that would have appeared right to the original author.

The assumption behind the interpretation of the passages I cited (Ezekiel 1, Rev. 20:4-22) is simply that a description of an end time vision should be clear, orderly, and in perfect sequence. The problem I have with this assumption is that there don’t seem to be any examples in scripture of such a clean, orderly work that would allow us to conclude that this was the “normal” form for such a vision report. The apocalyptic speeches of Jesus are more orderly, though not much more forthcoming with the data, than these, but it isn’t the report of a vision. A similar assumption has been made about Isaiah 24-27.

If you did your own outline of these four chapters, showing transition points, take a look at it again. If not, use the one I did earlier in this series, and then read the passage again. What kind of feeling do these chapters give you? Is it necessarily true that in a time of crisis, however resolved, we would feel a clean sequence of events, or would we have a slower transition?

Each of the “forms” we identified (though I used ad hoc names, rather than those you will find in many commentaries) contributes to the feeling of these chapters. We can use form criticism, identifying a passage as a hymn or a prayer, for example, to help us understand the pieces, but they form a portion of the word picture that the author is painting. They come from different places and situations, but they are combined into one theme.

In my next entry I’ll look a bit more at the theme and how it is brought together, and we’ll use a little bit of methodology from redaction criticism. While some scholars do try some source criticism on this passage, generally theories that combine some of the elements into sources prior to the final composition generally rely on extremely thin evidence, and I am unconvinced that such sources can be identified. The best picture of authorship, in my view, is that a single author takes elements from worship, devotional life, existing literature, and his own visions and compositions, and combines them into a passage heralding God’s final victory. The elements may look scattered to us, but that is largely because we come with the wrong questions, asking what historical events are in view, what is the sequence of age-ending events pictured, and so forth, when the author is answering the question of what it will be like when YHWH makes his final intervention in human history.

Isaiah 24-27 – Starting Form Criticism

Isaiah 24-27 – Starting Form Criticism

Form Criticism involves identifying smaller units in a composition that might have been transmitted separately, especially orally, prior to being included in the composition you are studying. There are quite a number of sections in our selection (Isaiah 24-27) that can be examined in this way.

Since I am writing this series to help people examine the results of critical Biblical scholarship critically, let me suggest that you try at least part of this process on your own. I will assume you are working from English Bible versions, though I will comment some from the Hebrew text. Here’s a simple process to use:

  1. Read the entire passage a couple of times to get used to it.
  2. Read the entire passage more slowly, looking for transitions. Transitions might include:
    1. Change from prose to poetry and vice versa
    2. Change of topic, such as from praise to warning
    3. Transitional phrases, such as “thus says the Lord”
    4. Substantial changes in style and vocabulary (these are usually very hard to detect in the short units involved in form criticism)
  3. Check your work reading from another version. It is possible for transitions to be obscured by translation. It is also sometimes quite arbitrary whether passages are rendered as prose or poetry
  4. Examine each section marked off by the transitions you noted, asking:
    1. Is this a passage that could have existed independently? Would it have made sense either without context or in multiple contexts?
    2. How tightly is it integrated into the passage?
    3. What might you call this? Don’t be worried at this point about formal names of Biblical forms. Just come up with something descriptive, such as “hymn/poem of praise,” “oracle of judgment,” “Promise of blessing,” and so forth.
  5. Ask yourself how each of these sections advances the theme of the passage as a whole

Once you have done these things you are ready to look at commentaries, or just at the discussion below. As you examine these passages as part of the whole, consider that someone, somewhere thought they worked together, otherwise we would not have them edited into a substantial document such as the book of Isaiah, or this large section of it.

Now for a look at transitions (I add “user friendly” titles for sections in bold):

  • 24:1 – changes from prose to poetry at the beginning of the passage as a whole
  • 24:3 – verse ends with “for YHWH has spoken this word” creating a section of 24:1-3. Note, however, that the topic continues in verse 4
  • 24:14 – Topic change from destruction to a song of praise, though it ends on a negative note
  • 24:1-13 could be called an oracle of judgment
  • 24:17 – Topic change to judgment again.
  • 24:14-16 could be called short hymn/poem of praise to God, though consider the last half of verse 16 and just how it relates to the rest.
  • 25:1 – Topic change again to a hymn of praise.
  • 24:17-23 could be called either an oracle of judgment, or a prediction of end-time events
  • 25:6 – Topic change, prediction, promise of future blessing
  • 25:1-5 could be called a hymn of praise
  • 25:10b – Topic change, prediction of judgment on Moab
  • 25:6-10a could be called a promise or prediction of blessing
  • 26:1 – Topic change, the song to be sung in Judah
  • 25:10b-12 could be called an oracle of prediction of judgment
  • 27:1 – Topic and form change, punishing of Leviathan, turn to cosmological imagery
  • 26:1-21 could be called a song of lament for the community.
    (Note that treating this whole chapter as a unity is not accepted by many commentators. I will look at some of the differences in my next post as well as explaining why I see it as a unit
  • 27:2 – Form change back to poetry
  • Despite the change in form from prose (v1) to poetry (v2), 27:1 doesn’t appear to be a separate unit, but rather an introduction to verses 2-6
  • 27:7 – Topic change, poetry now describes a situation of judgment
  • 27:1-6 could be called a promise of restoration
  • 27:12 – Change topic and form from judgment expressed as poetry to promise expressed as prose
  • 27:7-11 could be called both a warning and description of judgment
  • 27:12-13 contain a promise of restoration in prose form.

Now all of this may seem rather complex, but it is the type of work, in very summary form and with selected terminology, that Bible critics do. If you think I am attempting either to support or to oppose the value of such work in this example, you’re missing the point. I am simply attempting to show you the nuts and bolts that go into critical claims, claims that are both asserted and rejected often without consideration of how their proponents arrived at them.

In my next post I’m going to look at some of the suggested divisions by commentators, and I’m also going to discuss what, if anything, we have accomplished in all this activity. As we proceed through the other critical methods we will continue to ask just what of value each one has contributed to our understanding of this passage.

Revelation: Progressive or Continuous?

Revelation: Progressive or Continuous?

Working on the book of Hebrews over on my Participatory Bible Study blog has led me to do some additional thinking about revelation or inspiration, and how it functions. One of the key claims of the book of Hebrews is that Jesus is a greater revelation than that provided by the Torah. In order to support this claim, he has to first establish that revelation is in some sense progressive, though he does not develop a doctrine of progressive revelation, but rather establishes that a new, greater revelation can supercede an earlier one.

This is a key difference between Christianity and Judaism. Judaism sees the Torah as the ultimate revelation, and everything that follows is less authoritative. The idea of something appearing that would supercede the Torah is pretty much anathema. It is typical of later religions to make a claim that their own newer revelation is greater than what has gone before. For Christianity, it’s Jesus and the New Testament, but then many Christians want to claim that revelation has ceased. For Islam (or at least the vast majority of it), the Qur’an is the final revelation, and cannot be superceded. It’s finally the perfect thing.

But Christians divide on this point, some believing in one form or another of continuing revelation, while others believe that revelation ceased with the age of the apostles. Amongst Christians liberals and charismatics tend to see revelation as continuing, while the reformed movement and those related to it see revelation as complete with the Bible. There are a number of special cases, such as the Roman Catholic church and the concept ofthe “magisterium.” Technically, this is not continuing revelation, but in effect, it certainly gives that appearance. The Latter Day Saints have their living apostles who can bring out new revelation.

I grew up as Seventh-day Adventist, and one of the key controversies between SDAs and the rest of the Christian community is over Ellen White. Can you have a modern prophet, and how does this relate to scripture? Here again I think there is a difference in the way things are expressed and the way they are put into practice. My experience was that many Adventists used the writings of Ellen White as though they were scripture, no matter how church doctrine was stated. But I don’t think SDAs are alone on this issue. The place of the prophetic movement in charismatic and pentecostal churches is very similar and I see some of the same things being done either with words from the Lord, visions, and writings. Some conversation here between modern charismatics and Seventh-day Adventists might be valuable. I have often wondered how Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel would fare if we had as detailed a record of their lives, along with copies of every letter they ever wrote. Fortunately or unfortunately we don’t get to compare the first draft of Jeremiah with the second, and attempts at a chronology of his message are often quite speculative.

So let me ask first whether revelation is progressive. I think “progressive” is a terribly dangerous word. In biology, evolution is often described as a progress from simple to complex, primitive to modern, with “modern” defined as “better.” As time goes forward some suppose that organisms become better adapted to their environment, so that we have a constant movement toward perfection. But if you read descriptions of evolution by actual biologists, this picture doesn’t seem to work quite as well. One can say for certain that variety has generally increased, i.e. there is more now than there was in the Cambrian period, but none of the other claims I mentioned can be made with certainty. “More complex” may mean less adapted, and thus natural selection would select for simplicity. The environment changes as well, so one cannot be certain that we’re always moving to better adaptation.

Why bring biological evolution in here? Simply because progressive revelation is often compared to biological evolution, often in a negative sense. It’s part of the “applying evolution to everything.” Well, one can certain apply some evolutionary concepts to anything that changes, but that’s not really the issue here. “Progressive revelation” has gotten tangled with the same types of misunderstandings that are involved in biological evolution. First, it is assumed that any new revelation must automatically supercede an older revelation. Second, it is assumed that as time goes on the revelation we have in our possession will be better and better, i.e. that we will become closer and closer to the truth about God.

Just as the inevitable progress of biological evolution does not seem so well founded, and just as adaptation can go on for many millions of years without any assurance that anything actually gets 100% adapted, so I see little reason to assume that revelation will be progressive in either of those senses. What I personally hear from the Lord is more adapted to my circumstances. A current revelation to a church community will be better adapted to their time and their place, but because we are imperfect people, we will always have problems fully comprehending that revelation. A perfect revelation cannot be 100% adapted to imperfect recipients.

But my prior paragraph could easily be misunderstood. The biological analogy breaks down. The revelation is not, in fact, adapting itself. Rather, the revelation is coming to different people, in different circumstances, at different times, and in different ways. It has always been that way. We can refine our understanding, but again, because we are imperfect, there is no guarantee that we are always getting better. We can hope we are, but we cannot be certain. The next generation could look back at our time and laugh, just as many of us laugh at a prior time.

I think that God is continually revealing himself, continually speaking. We hear with varied clarity. In scripture and established traditions, we take those things that have been heard, confirmed, and reaffirmed at many times and in many places. What Isaiah said is not necessarily better than what someone hears from the Lord in their morning devotions. But Isaiah’s words have been used and tested repeatedly by many people over a long period of our tradition, and so have been accepted as of genuine, general value over a wide geographic area and over a broad range of times and places. The fact that his book is scripture is a definition of the community that accepts it, not a simple derivation from the nature of the content.

I know there will be those who are disturbed. I am overcome by delusions of grandeur, and am receiving revelations of the quality and value of those of the prophet Isaiah. [Pause for effect :-)] Well, no, I’m not. But if God speaks to me, and if I hear correctly, the words of God are just as true whispered in my ear as in anybody else’s. And of course they are just as true whispered in anybody else’s ear, including the ear of someone I despise, as they are in mine.

I have more options to test these words now because I have scripture, as defined by my community, and I can even dabble in scripture as defined by other communities just to check things out. This increase in quantity and variety gives me an advantage. One pictures Abraham, as tradition suggests dealing with idols as was the family business, and suddenly addressed by God. “Get out of here! Go somewhere that I’ll show you!” Abraham has very little to go on. Scripture doesn’t exist yet, and won’t for centuries. He simply has to decide whether to accept what the voice says (presumably based on the patriarchal tradition, but do you want to decide on God’s voice based on your family tradition?) or not. I have it easier. I have a community; I’m not about to found one. I have other people who at least claim to hear God speak, though this is often more of a hindrance than otherwise. There’s more variety.

But fundamentally God speaking is God speaking, and I don’t think it’s getting better or worse. We just have more instances of it to study. So I reject the term “progressive” and prefer “continuous.”

Isaiah 24-27 – Textual Issues

Isaiah 24-27 – Textual Issues

I’m approaching the textual issues for these four chapters from the point of view of English translations. I want to look for those textual issues that actually have an impact on major English translations. This is a procedure you can follow any time you study a Bible passage, assuming you don’t know Greek or Hebrew and can’t use original language tools. Check the footnotes in a variety of translations, and note readings that are used as the primary text, or that are suggested as alternates. These may results from several sources:

  • LXX/Septuagint
  • Syriac
  • Other versions, Latin, Coptic, Georgian, etc.
  • Other Hebrew manuscripts-there are, indeed, some small variations even in late Hebrew manuscripts.
  • Dead Sea Scrolls
  • Conjecture, normally tagged something like cn or cj (Check the abbreviations in your Bible translation for details)

This list applies to the Hebrew scriptures. In the Pentateuch, add the Samaritan Pentateuch as a source. In the New Testament, you need a different list.

I’m going to limit my list this time to the New Living Translation, the New Revised Standard Version, and the Revised English Bible. I’m limiting the number to three just for space. There are a number of other good Bible translations to use in this type of study, including especially the New English Translation and the English Standard Version.

These versions contain the following numbers of textual footnotes in the four chapters we are considering, including places where the translators indicate that the Hebrew meaning is uncertain:

  • NLT – Has a small number of translation notes; no textual notes. (The absence of textual notes is significant also.)
  • NRSV – Lists seven verses with textual notes
  • REB – Lists eight verses with textual notes

The value of looking at multiple versions is illustrated here. As you will see in the chart, the REB and NRSV lists only match in one case. We will compare readings in the NLT, where in some cases an issue is resolved by the translators, but they did not feel a footnote was necessary. In normal study, you can survey more translations. I looked at the English Standard Version, Contemporary English Version, and the New English Translation, though I did not include them in the chart.

Verse REB NRSV NLT
24:15 the eastern regions, footnote indicates that the Hebrew is uncertain in the east In eastern lands
All translations reflect one probable reading. There is no textual variant, but there is some uncertainty as to translation
25:5 deletes “heat in the shadow of a cloud” includes this phrase, but divides the poetic lines differently Includes all, divides as REB
This passage using some difficult phrasing. REB sees the phrase “heat in the shadow of a cloud” as out of place, NLT translates as is, but NRSV begins a conditional clause at the end of verse 14, carrying it forward into verse 15, thus including the phrase, but nonetheless making greater sense of the passage. Personally I would go with the NRSV translation here; REB is deleting a phrase because it is too uncertain to translate.
25:11 despite the struggle of their hands with every stroke of his hands and all their evil works
The NRSV marks the word “struggle” with a footnote indicating the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain. Even though neither the NLT or the REB provide a footnote, it is clear from the difference in their rendering that the meaning is somewhat uncertain. The problem is with the rendering of the Hebrew word ‘arbah, “movements (or nimble movements)” associated with hands. The meaning is clearly metaphorical, and the translations differ in their rendering. This is a good issue to resolve when you get to exegesis.

I call attention to the fact that only comparing translations and comparing footnotes would bring this type of issue to the attention of a Bible student who does not read Hebrew.

26:4 he (using the parallel line with “LORD” to indicate the meaning) LORD GOD LORD GOD
Another NRSV footnote not reflected in the others. The Hebrew reads “Yah YHWH,” and this is handled differently by the different translations. Since there is no significant change in meaning, the rendering is largely a matter of taste. Many commentators regard the duplication as an error as the use of the abbreviated “YAH” is unusually before the full tetragrammaton “YHWH.”
26:8 We have had regard to we wait for you we love to obey your laws
The REB here claims to follow the 1QIs(a) reading, which leaves off the “you” suffix on “we hope (for)” or “we look to.” Literally as far as possible, “Even/also the path of your judgments, YHWH, we look to [you]” which would allow a number of renderings. Is it in the path of judgments that they look to the Lord, or is it the path provided by God’s judgments that they look to? Again, though the scroll and the versions that generally follow it suggest a reading here, exegesis is more likely to provide an answer to how this should be rendered. Note again that only one version provides you with the footnote indicating there is something to study here.
26:11 zeal for your people zeal for your people eagerness to defend your people
Hebrew literally reads “zeal of the people” here. Only the REB provides a footnote indicating we are dealing with a variant, though all three versions make the same translation choice. Again, the footnote alerts you to an issue.
26:16 chastened by the whisper
(REB also notes that Hebrew reads “they” rather than “we” as other versions translate)
poured out a prayer bowed beneath
Both REB and NRSV call attention to the issue here. This is one to settle in exegesis, though you should be very careful in coming up with a decision if you can’t check the Hebrew.
26:18 REB note word “like” in the Hebrew delete “like” delete “like”
All translations render in a similar way, but REB calls your attention to an underlying variant. It is not at all certain how one would translate if the word “like” is included.
26:19a their bodies (second line), footnote indicates Hebrew “your body” Your dead (collective) their bodies
The meaning here is identical, but REB again alerts us to the textual issue.
26:19b those long dead those long dead in the place of the dead
This is not a textual issue but one of translation. The Hebrew word is “shades.” NLT takes it as the dew falling in the place where the shades live, thus “place of the dead” while the other translations take “shades” as those who have been dead a long time.
27:6 time to come days to come the time is coming
Hebrew is literally “those to come” or “the coming ones” which could certainly refer to days. All three versions take this as a reference to time.
27:8 His quarrel with Jerusalem ends . . . By expulsion He has punished Israel only a little
Hebrew literally “by expulsion, by exile you contended against them.” I would suggest the variety of renderings makes a footnote a good idea, but only the NRSV provides one in this case.

*F: – footnote reading; T: – reading incorporated into the text

This is obviously an incredibly quick tour of the textual issues in the chapters. Many will find these all too minor to take very seriously, but I think they do illustrate the type of information a serious Bible student can find by working with multiple translations and making serious use of the footnotes. Unless you can work with the source material in the original languages, you will have to settle your choice between the renderings of various versions during your exegesis.

My next entry on Isaiah will deal with various elements of the passage as they can be examined with form criticism. Remember that this will be a kind of dissection approach to the text. Later we’ll look again at the whole to ask what genre the whole composition is.

Isaiah 24-27 – Overview

Isaiah 24-27 – Overview

Many of the issues of Biblical criticism are illustrated in these four chapters from the book of Isaiah. The book of Isaiah as a whole is fertile ground for such study, but one has to take a reasonable sized bite for an illustration. What I want to do with these chapters is discuss how various critical tools apply, or do not apply, to the text, and what can be learned from applying those tools. I will focus my attention on tools that are available to those who do not read Hebrew, looking for ways in which they can evaluate various critical claims for themselves using easily available materials.

To accomplish this I’m going to post on the following. (I may break some of these items into multiple entries or combine them where one element is very short.)

1. The text, applying textual criticism to get an idea of the state of the text.
2. Literary criticism, probably combined with elements of genre criticism. Are these four chapters a unit that can be studied independently as a whole? What type of literature are they?
3. Form criticism, a look at the individual units, if any, in the text.
4. Source and Redaction criticism, how we got to the state of the text.
5. Tradition criticism, summarizing 3 & 4.
6. Genre and canonical criticism, taking us back to #2 and tying this back together.

If you want to follow the procedures, you can start by reviewing the book of Isaiah as a whole, and then by reading these four chapters several times–at least enough times so that you have a mental picture of the passage as a whole. As you do this, you can look for your own answer to the question of whether this is itself a literary unit as part of the book of Isaiah, whether I have drawn the boundaries of the unit I’m going to study correctly. At the same time, you can prepare for the state of canonical criticism, which will ask how this fits into the overall message of Isaiah as that message fits into the message of canonical scripture.

The book of Isaiah contains 66 chapters. Conservative Christians generally believe that it was written by one prophet, Isaiah, who lived in Judah starting late in the reign of Uzziah and possibly continuing his ministry into the reign of Manasseh, Hezekiah’s son and successor. Critical scholarship, however, has generally divided the book into at least two parts, chapter 1-39 as First Isaiah and 40-66 as Second Isaiah. Chapters 36-39, no matter what the scheme, are a historical interlude telling the story of Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah and his eventual defeat. The vast majority divide that further into 40-55 as Second Isaiah and 56-66 as Third Isaiah.

General readers often get the idea that the critical view of Isaiah is that simple (or quite possibly complain of its complexity) without realizing that the critical view of the book is many times more complicated than that. Form critics will look for a life setting and date of composition for individual prophetic oracles or other literary elements in the text. Source critics may provide a variety of dates for individual sources, and so you can have material from any date in the general period of the Isaiah tradition. To get an idea of the dates and their spread, see Isaiah Timeline. This gives the broad outlines of this scheme of dating.

Individual portions of the text, may have been spoken, written, or added to the collection at any time, however. Let’s look at an example from outside our narrow range of chapters. In Isaiah 14, we find three separate sections that are clearly defined: 14:1-13, 24-27, and 28-32. The first is against Babylon, and appears to assume a situation with Judah in exile. Some would suggest, however, that the dirge (3-21) could have been written at any time, and then the prose introduction (1-2) and conclusion (22-23), which are the only parts that mention Babylon by name, are added by a redactor in the exile. That redactor could be second Isaiah (the author of chapters 40-55), or even someone after that time. Trying to answer such questions wouldl involve form and redaction criticism. Verses 24-27, however are addressed to Assyria. By the time of the Babylonian exile, Assyria was long gone as the primary foe of Judah, but in the time of First Isaiah, Assyria was the primary enemy. The third oracle is against the Philistines, and it would be much harder to date. My point here is that this chapter is one of the simpler ones in which to discuss dating. If one accepts the composite authorship of Isaiah at all, one will find plenty of complexity and a considerable number of cases in which one admits one doesn’t know.

Let’s turn our thoughts back to chapters 24-27. If they are a unit, then when was that unit written? First, we will have to ask whether there are elements of this unit that were written separately and then combined, or whether the passage was written as a unified whole. As I noted above, Isaiah 14 is relatively simple to deal with, with specific enemies addressed, and clear beginnings and ends for the three sections of the chapters. But the absence of that sort of clarity in 24-27 has not prevented commentators from presenting a number of divisions. As a Bible student, don’t simply take a scholar’s word for the divisions. Each and every one of these items is controversial; test it all, accept what convinces you. We’ll look at the possible divisions when we discuss form criticism.

But is there anything that can be said about date? One of the easily available tools I will follow through this study is the Oxford Study Bible (REB). This Bible provides some pretty good notes and introductory articles on many topics. In its note on chapter 24 it says, “The literary style with the tendency thoward apocalyptic (24:21-23) and the theological perspective of final judgment (v. 21) indicate that this collection originated long after Isaiah of Jerusalem (see Introduction)” (page 727). Here’s where you need to put on your own critical glasses and think seriously about the claim made.

There are some assumptions here:

  1. Apocalyptic developed in a generally linear fashion so that one can place a particular example of it on a continuum.
  2. Apocalyptic started late
  3. This passage is an example of apocalyptic literature
  4. Final judgment is a late element in Hebrew literature

One critical piece of this puzzle would be the dating of Daniel. I’ve called attention to a number of commentaries in recent blog entries, and one should note that such scholars as Gleason Archer and Joyce Baldwin maintain that Daniel was written in the 6th century BCE, while Ernest Lucas allows such dating. Hartman & Di Lella along with Porteous solidly supported a late dating (2nd century BCE) for Daniel. If one assumes some sort of linear development for apocalyptic, then Daniel is probably somewhere toward the early middle part of that process. It’s not quite up to the book of Revelation, but it’s more apocalyptic than some chapters in Ezekiel and perhaps more similar to Zechariah. Those four centuries of difference in the dating of Daniel could make a substantial difference in how one dates these chapters. In addition, there are those who regard Daniel as a composite itself, with some elements being quite early (5th-4th century BCE) and some later. Some strongly apocalyptic elements (Daniel 7, for example) are considered by these scholars as quite early.

Whether apocalyptic was a linear development or not is hard to say, partially because we are not so sure just what apocalyptic was, and as is the case here, we aren’t too sure when to date it. If you are interested in testing this element of dating, try reading Ezekiel 37-39 and the book of Zechariah and comparing them to these four chapters. Some elements of apocalyptic generally include symbolic visions, emphasis on eschatology, judgment, and angelic guides or interpreters. If there was a progression, where do you think these chapters would fall? You can hold that thought as we study them and see if you change your mind.

My next entry will be a survey of the text of these four chapters as we see them in English translations. I will discuss textual issues uses some original language resources, but I will focus on what you can learn from the text and footnotes of a few English Bible versions.